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Thursday, March 9, 2006 - Page updated at 01:18 AM

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Little research behind claims that hoodia is safe, effective for losing weight

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Amazing pill that kills the cravings! Go all day without being hungry! Lose weight by losing the urge to snack!

The spam ads that fill our in-boxes and the television commercials featuring actors wearing white lab coats all promise a miracle in a single pill — an appetite suppressant that makes dieting a snap by killing your desire to eat. If smokers have the patch to stop nicotine cravings, why not a pill to eliminate the desire for food?

Hoodia gordonii, a South African succulent favored by the Spartan-like San Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, may be a dieter's dream — or it could be just another empty promise.

Hoodia first burst onto our consciousness more than a year ago, when CBS' "60 Minutes" sent a correspondent to the Kalahari to try the plant herself. She reported that after chewing on the bitter leaf, she had no desire to eat for almost 24 hours. A BBC reporter soon followed, and he reported the same results.

Interest in the plant skyrocketed after a rumor began to circulate that hoodia is the diet drug of choice for the "Desperate Housewives" actresses. But popularity aside, experts say proof that hoodia works is anecdotal, that little research has been done to confirm the assumption it has no side effects and that consumers who are buying the supplements over the Internet or at health-food stores may not be getting what they're paying for.

Nutritionists say even if the supplement works, it might be better if it didn't.

Dieting by starving the body is not a good idea, says Pam Wilson, chief clinical dietitian at San Ramon, Calif., Regional Medical Center.

When the body is starved, the metabolism slows, and any calories it gets are stored as fat.

"It can lower our metabolism by 30 percent," Wilson says. "That's not what you want to do if you're trying to lose weight."

Wilson has other concerns about the supplement. The only known clinical study was conducted on rats, and because hoodia is considered an appetite suppressant that affects the body centrally, there are unknown risks to your organs, nervous and circulatory systems. Hoodia may be as safe as purified water, but without research, Wilson says, we don't know.

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That's often a problem with herbs and supplements. The products are not tested and regulated in the same way that prescription medications are. A product may be on the market a long time before a pattern of trouble is revealed. There is a history of weight-loss products that were initially considered benign — fen-phen, ephedra — and later were discovered to cause serious health problems, some of which resulted in deaths.

"[Hoodia] could be a nightmare," Wilson says.

A British pharmaceutical company, Phytopharm, has patented what it says is the active ingredient in hoodia, which the company calls P57. In 1997, the company entered into an agreement with Pfizer to develop hoodia, but Pfizer abandoned the plan, saying it was too expensive to extract and synthesize. Phytopharm has since struck a deal with Unilever, which is said to have begun its own studies.

Ingredients questioned

Some people have questioned whether products boasting of hoodia actually contain the supplement. Critics have argued that there isn't enough cultivated hoodia to account for all the products claiming to have it. While the plant grows in the unforgiving sands of the Kalahari, it apparently is not easy to propagate in nurseries or in commercial fields.

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), says he believes consumers are receiving hoodia in products purchased from AHPA members. The association requires its members to comply with federal law and AHPA guidelines, McGuffin says.

"I know of several companies that import it," McGuffin says. "I've seen several companies selling it on trade-show floors and Internet Web sites."

While the AHPA has yet to delve into the question of the plant's safety, it has created a commission to "promote and protect responsible commerce of products that contain hoodia." The Federal Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the herb and supplement industry, meaning it doesn't require testing and studies before a product hits the market.

The association compiled a botanical safety handbook for its membership in 1997. The book outlines how 550 herbs should be used — or not used — but the book was compiled before hoodia arrived on the market.

There have been no reports of health problems associated with hoodia. McGuffin notes that people have used it for hundreds of years, apparently without ill effects.

But does it work?

So the question remains: Does it work? A check of dieting discussion boards and blogs offers a definite maybe. While the slight majority of posters said it didn't work, almost as many said it did.

McGuffin says that with herbal supplements as well as prescription drugs, consumers shouldn't expect the pill to solve all the problems. They should be treated as aids, he says, not cures.

"There is no silver bullet when it comes to weight loss," McGuffin says. "Drugs aren't silver bullets; over-the-counter substances are not silver bullets; herbs aren't silver bullets. You can't sit on the couch and eat potato chips and take a pill and lose weight. Diet and exercise are essential."

McGuffin's reasoning seems to be reflected in the instructions packaged with the hoodia pills. Dieters are told that for the pills to work effectively, they must be combined with reduced calorie intake, reduction of carbohydrates and fats, lots of water consumption and exercise. One manufacturer recommends walking one to two miles a day, and drinking one ounce of water for every two pounds you weigh.

In other words, eat a sensible diet and exercise.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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